Arrests at the border this spring have jumped to their highest levels since Trump took office, and the reversal has left the president furious at Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and other aides who he believes aren’t doing enough to stop the trend.
Border arrest statistics have long served as a metric for illegal immigration flows, but the Trump administration has treated their monthly publication as a barometer for the president’s security efforts.
White House aides have been receiving regular updates on illegal migration trends this spring, and administration officials said last week they were not surprised by the May numbers, expecting them to remain high into the summer. Homeland Security spokesman Tyler Houlton said in statement Wednesday the administration’s crackdown needed more time to work.
“These numbers show that while the Trump administration is restoring the rule of law, it will take a sustained effort and continuous commitment of resources over many months to disrupt cartels, smugglers, and nefarious actors,” Houlton said.
“No one expects to reverse years of political inaction overnight or in a month,” he added.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the May numbers or on whether the president has seen them.
Eager to campaign on his border security agenda ahead of November’s midterm elections, Trump has told aides that curbing illegal immigration is crucial to GOP success. He cited the issue as one of his key achievements in a tweet Monday marking the 500th day of his presidency.
“This is my 500th Day in Office and we have accomplished a lot - many believe more than any President in his first 500 days,” the president wrote. “Massive Tax & Regulation Cuts, Military & Vets, Lower Crime & Illegal Immigration, Stronger Borders, Judgeships, Best Economy & Jobs EVER, and much more ...”
Behind the scenes, the jump in border arrests this spring has inflamed Trump and sent his aides scrambling to find ways to bring the numbers down. In April, Trump ordered National Guard troops to deploy along the border, and Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” approach that threatens anyone who enters the U.S. illegally with criminal prosecution and jail.
A breakdown of the May statistics show Border Patrol agents made 40,344 arrests in May, and U.S. customs officers determined another 11,568 migrants to be “inadmissible,” typically after taking them into custody at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico divide.
DHS statistics show the number of families who attempted to cross the border illegally increased by 435 percent last month in comparison to May 2017. The number of unaccompanied minors rose 329 percent.
U.S. agents detained 6,405 underage migrants in May, up from 4,302 last month. That category includes many teenagers and children who are seeking to reunite with a parent already present in the United States.
The vast majority continue to come across the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, but so far this year a greater portion have been taken into custody in southern Arizona, suggesting that migration flows may be shifting west once more. In the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, the number of underage migrants detained has risen 42 percent since last September. In the Yuma sector, the increase is 110 percent.
The Trump administration says it will aggressively use human trafficking laws to prosecute parents who send for their children by hiring “coyote” smuggling guides to escort them to the border.
Underage migrants detained by U.S. agents are quickly transferred to shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). But those facilities are swelling with children who have been separated from their parents in recent weeks as a result of the “zero tolerance” crackdown on families attempting to cross illegally.
As of late May, nearly 11,000 migrant children were in government custody, an increase of more than 20 percent over the previous month, according to the latest HHS figures. With HHS child shelters at 95 percent capacity, the agency says it is preparing to add thousands of beds to cope with the influx.
Most of the increase in border traffic this spring has been fueled by families and teenagers from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, many of whom say they are fleeing gang violence and wish to apply for asylum in the United States.
“Throwing everything and the kitchen sink at these vulnerable asylum seekers is not working, as the forces driving them are much stronger than the cruel deterrence policies being deployed by the administration,” said Kevin Appleby, the senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies in New York.
“Addressing these forces is the best and most humane way to end this flow,” Appleby said.
Homeland Security officials say their real target is transnational smuggling gangs who they say are coaching migrants to game the system by exaggerating threats to their lives. Trump and top DHS officials have laid blame on Democrats in recent weeks who they say are blocking their attempts to tighten up asylum rules.
Central American migrants typically spend 21 days or longer to reach the U.S. border, and word of harsher treatment from U.S. authorities will take longer to reach their countries and have a dissuasive effect, administration officials said.
Border arrests reached an all-time high of 1.6 million in 2000, according to DHS records, but annual totals fell significantly during the Bush and Obama administrations as the government spent heavily on infrastructure and doubled the number of U.S. agents at the border.